Here we go again! We've contemplated the new cars, discussed the testing times and compared new teammates and now the Australian Grand Prix is here and 2007 is about to begin in earnest. Returning to its usual season-opener slot after last year's calendar shuffle, Melbourne's Albert Park will be the first test of everyone's mettle.
The 5.3 km street circuit is long, fast and bumpy. Downforce tends to be quite high and braking stability is a key area with the stop-start nature of the circuit. The track is quite dirty on a Friday so the grip levels are initially low and the weather can be a bit unpredictable in Melbourne.
"I think the car should go reasonably well there," said Renault executive director of engineering Pat Symonds. "Melbourne needs a car that has a good change of direction, and that is good on the brakes. The track can be a bit bumpy, and the temperatures are very variable at this time of year. But we have seen our cars perform well here in recent years, and I don't think it will be too bad for us."
Tyres have been a hot topic over the winter as teams and drivers adapt to the harder compounds. Now Bridgestone is the sole supplier and head of track operations Kees van de Grint said the manufacturer is no longer making tyres for a particular chassis or driver. "Everybody is the same, so the teams have to adjust the car and the driver has to adjust his driving style, to get the best performance out of the tyres."
Fernando Alonso won with Renault in Melbourne last year and, unsurprisingly, aims to do so again but this time with McLaren. The Spaniard said he has settled into his new team well over the winter and is really motivated to get started. His teammate this season is rookie Lewis Hamilton, who was GP2 champ last year.
"There are a lot of new things in the sport this season such as new rules, all teams running on Bridgestone Potenzas, drivers changing teams," said Alonso. "Everyone is starting from zero and it is going to make things very interesting. Am I going to go out at Albert Park and win my first race with Vodafone McLaren Mercedes? We are certainly going to push hard to try."
Naturally there will be many people out there missing Michael Schumacher's presence but Ferrari has one of the most exciting pairings on the grid this year. Can Kimi Raikkonen finally claim the title that he's waited so long for or will Felipe Massa continue his competitive form and beat the Finn to it?
"At this point last year, just before my first grand prix as a Ferrari driver, I know that many people were sceptical about my ability," Massa commented. "Now, twelve months later, with some wins and pole positions in the bag, I think I have changed a lot and I am stronger mentally. If you look at the last two years, I have improved a lot and I have much more experienced."
Although Renault is the current constructors' champion, the French squad didn't seem up to the pace of Ferrari and McLaren over the winter. Ferrari looks to be the team at the top but we won't really know until race day. With his experience Giancarlo Fisichella is thought to be Renault's best hope but rookie Heikki Kovalainen is generating a lot of interest.
"I am expecting a tough race," the youngster said. "I am preparing for every possibility, and I know that I will have to push right to the limit. With the team, we will have to find the perfect set-up for the R27 to get maximum potential out of the car. From a personal point of view, I want to get to the finish without any problems and finish in the points. I think that would be a good start."
After the 'big three' there are several teams that could perhaps be regulars on the podium this year. BMW Sauber gave a creditable account of itself over the winter and there's also the likes of Honda and Toyota which should be in the mix -- although that doesn't mean they will be. Neither of the latter two produced any startling results in testing so it's hard to guess how they will do.
Mostly people seem to be playing down their chances. "Although we have made some progress in the recent test in Bahrain, we still have to find more improvements to take us to where we want to be," said Honda senior technical director Shuhei Nakamoto. "Our race pace looks stronger than our qualifying pace at the moment."
Based on the winter performance Williams and Red Bull will probably be in the midfield pack, the latter perhaps a bit more towards the back of it. Despite expectations Red Bull didn't really shine in testing, although Williams seemed fairly competitive. However, as usual, it won't be until a few races have been run that we'll get a better picture.
Alex Wurz returns to full time competition alongside Nico Rosberg at Williams after quite some time as a test driver. "Melbourne is certainly one of my favourite places on the calendar because the atmosphere is so special, particularly as it's the season opener," he said. "The track is right in the heart of the city, a city which is so active and full of positive energy. Every team comes here with the highest of hopes -- the first race is always exiting because everyone will soon know where they really stand."
Super Aguri has just launched its new SA07 and they and Toro Rosso remain convinced about the legality of their cars despite opinions to the contrary. Meanwhile, Super Aguri and Spyker's dispute over Giedo van der Garde is apparently ongoing and reportedly the Dutchman can't get his superlicence until the situation is resolved.
Those things aside, Super Aguri is eager to begin its second season, with drivers Takuma Sato and Anthony Davidson. "Around this time last year we were still struggling to get two cars onto the grid," said team principal Aguri Suzuki. "It was our first year and everything was a new experience for the team. This year we have been able to prepare for the season and everybody is raring to go."
There's always a huge amount of anticipation for the start of a new season; will the teams perform as expected? Will there be any dark horses and big surprises? And, of course, for the moment the most immediate question, who is going to win in Melbourne? We won't have long to wait and find out.